It was Max Hoffman, the New York-based Porsche importer, who was instrumental in getting the factory to produce a lightweight sports car for local competition in the USA. Hoffman’s clients were demanding a stripped-down factory version of the 356 to compete in the rapidly developing sports car racing scene in America. At less than $3000, the Speedster, which took the form of a basic roadster with racing-style bucket seats, was the ideal vehicle. It offered removable side curtains in place of wind-up windows, and a low-cut windshield that could easily be removed in favour of a tonneau cover and a racing windscreen. At first, Ferry Porsche objected to the very concept of building a car down to a certain price, but eventually he agreed.
The Speedster actually has its origins back in 1952, when a limited run of just fifteen 540 America Roadsters were produced and sent directly to the USA where they were very well received. The 356 Speedster that emerged in the autumn of 1954, would be a cross between the 540 America Roadster and a 356 Cabriolet, where the rear body panel was extended forward covering the rear seating area. The windscreen had a low, curved shape and the cockpit was covered by a light canvas top that could folded back easily. With the convertible hood pulled over the cockpit, the Speedster had a somewhat squashed look due to the low windscreen, its most elegant pose was with the hood folded back. Side windows were dispensed with, to be replaced by side curtains. Interior fittings and instruments were just the bare minimum, and two lightweight bucket seats were provided for the driver and a passenger. The result was not an inelegant sports car, but as the car was intended for competition use, embellishments were notably absent.
As from September of ’54 (1955 model year), the Speedster became a regular face in the 356-model family, but a year later with the 356 A, Porsche introduced the new 1600 cc engine developing 60 bhp. This new engine enabled the Speedster to whistle up to a top speed of 100 mph. Despite Ferry Porsche’s misgivings about the production of the Speedster, the company did benefit from the warm feelings of loyalty with which Porsche enthusiasts embraced the little model. During the three years in which the 356 A Speedster was available, a total of 2910 units were produced across all engine sizes.
Scarlet the Speedster #83032
Our feature car, a 1957 Porsche 356 A Speedster (chassis #83032), is a T1 model fitted with ‘beehive taillights’. It was about four years ago when the car was on display at the Porsche Club meeting at Brands Hatch, that the current owner, David Harrison, spotted it for sale. “Paragon Porsche had a stand at the back of the grandstand, and wherever you went, you had to walk past it and this car just kept winking at me from start to finish. I went over it with a fine-tooth comb, just looking at it, and I couldn’t fault it at all,” Harrison beamed.
A second viewing of the car sealed it for the new owner, and the Speedster moved into its new home in late 2014. “I have always fancied a Speedster but I never thought I would buy one because you hear horror stories about these Porsche restorations,” he added. But in this case, those fears were unfounded as the car had enjoyed a bare-tub rotisserie restoration completed to Concours standards. What is more is, this no-expense-spared restoration had been performed by the Porsche expert Jim Shuh who is known throughout the 356 community for not only his knowledge, but also his ability in Porsche 356 restoration, oversight and assembly. A strong emphasis was placed on restoring most of the original trim, body and mechanical components, rather than replacements from used sources or modern reproductions.
As a result of taking this approach to the restoration, chassis #83032 is a matching numbers car, apart from one element, that being the engine. However, the engine is factory correct 1957 Speedster engine, just like the one first installed in the car when it left the factory, and is approximately 100 engine numbers away from the original unit. This Speedster still boasts its original 4-speed transmission and the car is finished in its original colour of Signal Red with the original Black interior. The original ‘032’ stamped hood, doors and engine lid remain fitted to the car, and it still runs on the correct date-coded steel wheels as fitted by the factory.
Interestingly, the 356 A Speedster received ‘pickle fork’ windscreen wiper arms when it was first manufactured. These are extremely rare today as these arms did not hold the wiper blades very securely, and most 356 owners have replaced them over the years. Harrison explains “If you were to look at the end of the windscreen wiper, it has got a rounded end with two hooks which are like you would use to get pickled onions out of a jar. The windscreen wiper blade would then hook very precariously onto those two hooks. Over the years, people have taken those off and put on windscreen wipers where you can screw the windscreen wiper blades to the arm, and they are much better. So, to have those original arms is a very rare thing.”
The 356 A Speedster embodies all the qualities of the legendary model line that was conceived back in the early 1950s. So, what is the Speedster like to drive, I asked the owner, “You think you’re doing 150 mph, but you’re actually just doing 50 or 60 mph. I think it is probably faster than the Carrera because it is so light, and it certainly brakes better than any of the other cars because again, there is just no weight to it.”
The speedo is marked to 120 mph and it redlines at 4500 rpm, I commented. “Yes, and it will do that all day long,” the owner replied. “We haven’t been anywhere special with it. We have been asked to put it on display and local events, but otherwise we have just taken it out and enjoyed it.”
But, a while back David Harrison encountered a problem with the car. If the engine was still hot after it had been switched off, it would not restart. The car went off to Gantspeed Engineering, and with the engine removed and stripped, the problem was eventually traced to a compression fault. This was duly rectified, and the car hasn’t missed a beat ever since.
The interior of the car is spartan as already described above. Facing the driver are three large dials: prominently placed in the centre is the rev counter with a speedometer to the left and to the right is the fuel and oil temperature gauge. A collection of small pull knobs operate the lights and wipers, and the ignition is located to the right of the original two-spoke Banjo steering wheel. Under the dashboard to the left, is the handbrake.
Warning motorists at the rear of the car are what is known as ‘beehive’ lights. These were characteristic of the early cars, and if truth be told, they were not especially bright given that the car ran on a 6V battery system. Up front, the headlamps have mesh guards in front of the lenses, and this is to protect the glass from stones kicked by other cars. Anything more intrusive in front of the lenses would reduce the already weak 6V beam that the headlamps cast out at present.
This 1957 Porsche 356 A Speedster is an absolute peach, it is beautifully restored and looks like the proverbial ‘million dollars’. All the shut lines are perfect, and the doors close with a reassuring ‘thud’. Standing back from the car, it just looks gracefully smooth and in the 1950s, far more aerodynamic than anything else in its class.
In its day, cruising the boulevards of the Californian west coast cities, this car would have been the envy of anyone and everyone. Max Hoffman had the right vision back then, and to think that you could have one for less than $3000, the opposition must have tearing their hair out!
|Engine||4-cyl, horizontally opposed, Type 616/1|
|Bore x stroke||82.5 x 74 mm|
|Output||60 bhp (44 kW) @ 4500 rpm|
|Torque||81 ft (110 Nm) @ 2800 rpm|
|Valves||OHV, 2 valves/cylinder|
|Gearbox||4-speed, rear wheel drive|
|Height||1220 mm (with top closed)|
|Max. speed||99 mph (160 km/h)|
|Excellence was Expected||Karl Ludvigsen||Bentley Publishers||2019|
|Porsche and RUF Sportscars||Marc Bongers||Motorbuch Verlag||2005|
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale